On November 19, when the Golden State Warriors trailed the Los Angeles Clippers by 23 points, something incalculable lingered in the air. Despite the lead, you didn’t believe the Clippers would beat the Warriors, who were just 12-0 then, freshly varnished with the aura of invincibility we’ve since grown accustomed to. Invincibility, in the form of Stephen Curry, was still glued to the bench with one basket and foul trouble. The Warriors were like Superman, waiting for the last bullet to ricochet off his chest. Each Clipper blow only made them look stronger.
They won. And they kept winning. Eventually, you watched the Warriors break 16-0, then 20, then 24, conjuring comparisons to Jordan’s 72-win ’96 Bulls. Curry continued to operate in historic terms. He climbed up the all-time 3-point ranks; the only single-season record he can break is the one he set last year. He will. Soon, your heart quivered with each moment of brilliance. Steeped in a collective experience, you flipped to each game with the understanding that one day, these events would be neatly engraved into the pervasive myth. You felt, for the first time, a certain allegiance to these Warriors and this sense of inevitability, the overwhelming poetry and authority of Steph Curry.
If you’re a millennial like me, that meant blissfully – and finally –surrendering to cliché. You wanted what any person has ever wanted: to witness something. To say you were there. To know how it felt to see Michael Jordan win his first ring or take the Last Shot, to figure out whether his legend is extracted from truth or romanticized by the passing of time. That LeBron James was never that guy for you led you to believe it was the latter. In truth, LeBron never possessed the necessary on-court arrogance to mimic Jordan’s inner mania, to align his individual talents toward violently realigning the NBA’s chemical structure. LeBron may retire as the most complete player the NBA has ever seen, but he always needed that shooter in the corner.
Then there’s Curry, who collects the ball after Anthony Davis pokes it out of his fingers and opens the game with a 28-foot jumper over The Brow’s lanky arms. Perhaps Curry took Davis’ original swipe as an affront, that he released the ball as a method of dictating terms. But maybe he was staking a different claim. Maybe it was the simple fact of Davis’ arms: the implication that size still matters. You gawk as Curry rapidly writes a new NBA, where victory is a not a matter of size, space or distance. It’s geometric, the high arc beating the high arm. Check this ridiculous angle. Or this one.
Rampant individualism, that ingredient which makes cultural icons out of celebrities, leaves you gobsmacked. And yet you’re ashamed to still feel its tug, to not know better, to still need to service your baser instincts. You watch Kobe Bryant’s final act and grimace at the self-destruction, how it’s explained as though Kobe were a robot with one lever instead of a human with functioning logical faculties. The same killer instinct that made him so dominant is now hurting the Lakers, you read over and over again. Even Jordan, whose former dominance hasn’t translated in his ownership of an NBA team, now comes off as a grump – one of Martin Scorsese’s protagonists five years after the end of the film.
Curry, however, manages to cut across even this generational anxiety. He oozes with remarkable pluck, yes, but his independent streak is measured. Those 3-point heaves don’t just add to his legend, they truly benefit the Dubs. The six feet between a normal three and Curry’s 30-footers separate him from a league brimming with elite guards, and catapult the Warriors’ offense into historical terms. What’s more, you get the feeling that if they didn’t, Curry wouldn’t shoot them. This is, after all, the same guy who gets denied the ball and instead of flailing and clapping for it, trusts Draymond Green to make the right play. You watch him fill the wing and point out the opponent’s defensive holes like an orchestra conductor, or set a screen that prompts a frenzy and ends with Harrison Barnes slamming it at the rim. The ease with which Curry can relinquish control sedates you. It’s almost defiant, a heady denial of the maxims that insist great individuals must be fatally flawed, that the ingredients that make your heroes great also make them reprehensible human beings.
It occurs to you that the waltz with history is becoming secondary. It’s him, self-possessed and electric, that you are floored by. You’re drawn to Curry because his ability to tailor individual dominance into collective efficiency transcends every soul-sucking question.
Your chief moral dilemmas – “Uber or taxi?”, “local or Starbucks?” – are admittedly shallow, questions not of access to transportation and caffeine but of convenience and identity. Most days, you relent. You wait in line at Starbucks, then you refresh Instagram’s Explore tab, then you laugh at a relatable meme and then you cringe at how it plays off stereotypes. Then you hit refresh again. You can never collect your splintered self. Except with Curry, who represents everything without betraying anything. He transcends the modern antihero, but when he runs down the floor after drilling a 28-foot jumper in Ty Lawson’s grill, you can still imagine his silhouette coolly walking away as buildings explode in the background. It’s cool, not because he makes the shot. It’s cool because he wouldn’t agonize over not making it, the way you treat leftover Halloween candy in mid-November. It’s a new hero-ball, for the both the traditionalist and the analytically inclined, for quenching each internal desire, from pacifism to thrill.
Curry is ambition without self-destruction, how power feels without how power ruins, a man with a strong identity who’s still infused in a sense of community. He’s never trying too hard, except he’s always trying too hard. He doesn’t walk this tightrope so much as he weaves it on the fly. It’s a brand of individualism that’s perfectly tailored for you, a cheat code for a generation that still worships celebrities and athletes but increasingly calls them on their shit, creating everyday new questions about fandom, entertainment and guilt. You watch Kobe and LeBron, and they split you in half. You watch Curry, who can combine Kobe’s shot selection with LeBron’s efficiency, and there’s no trade-off, no void in your head. He makes you whole.
So he radiates, sustaining a levity that escapes you. You are moved by this. It has you on the balls of your feet. For the first time, you are truly jealous of a celebrity. You want to be like Curry. This culminates in a magnetism that erodes all magnetism prior. Finally, you get it. You know how it feels to witness a god among men, someone who isn’t consumed by the anxieties of mere mortals, oblivious to everyday indignities. He simply trusts his gut, and his gut leads him to greatness. There are times, when he trusts his own inevitability as much as you do, that he doesn’t watch the shot as it goes in. He turns around and runs back on defense. But you were there. You saw it.